Environmental Justice:

Federal Efforts Need Better Planning, Coordination, and Methods to Assess Progress

GAO-19-543: Published: Sep 16, 2019. Publicly Released: Oct 16, 2019.

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J. Alfredo Gómez
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Environmental justice seeks to address the disproportionately high health and environmental risks found among low-income and minority communities by seeking their fair treatment and involvement in environmental policy. California's mostly minority and low-income community of West Oakland, for example, is surrounded by 3 freeways and a port. Its residents are exposed to diesel air pollution 3 times higher than the surrounding area.

Most federal agencies have plans to address environmental justice issues, but few assessed their annual progress. We made 24 recommendations, including that agencies update their plans and report on progress.

West Oakland sits next to a major port and freeways. Up to 3,000 trucks a day visit the port.

Photograph of an industrial part of West Oakland near the port.

Photograph of an industrial part of West Oakland near the port.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

J. Alfredo Gómez
(202) 512-3841
gomezj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Most of the 16 agencies that are members of the interagency working group on environmental justice—created by Executive Order 12898 in 1994—reported taking some actions to identify and address environmental justice issues, such as creating data tools, developing policies or guidance, and building community capacity through small grants and training. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a mapping tool that can help identify low-income and minority communities exposed to health or environmental risks. Several agencies, such as EPA and the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and the Interior, also developed policies or guidance to analyze environmental justice issues during environmental reviews or enforcement activities. Most of the agencies supported their efforts with funds and staff from related programs, but EPA and the Department of Energy provided funds ($8.3 million in fiscal year 2018) and staff specifically for environmental justice.

Agencies' progress toward environmental justice is difficult to gauge, however, because most do not have updated strategic plans and have not reported annually on their progress or developed methods to assess progress. As they agreed to do in a 2011 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), most of the agencies developed environmental justice strategic plans, but only six have updated them more recently. Few agencies have measures or methods for assessing progress, and the working group has not provided guidance to help agencies with such assessments. The number of agencies issuing annual progress reports has declined (see fig.). Updated strategic plans and annual progress reports, along with guidance on performance measures and methods, would help agencies provide essential information to assess their progress.

Number of Annual Progress Reports Issued by 16 Agencies from the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice since Fiscal Year 2012

The working group, chaired by EPA, has developed committees and written agreements to carry out its responsibilities to coordinate agencies' environmental justice efforts, but it is not carrying out several functions in the 1994 Executive Order. GAO has found that collaborative mechanisms, such as the working group, benefit from clear goals, but the working group's organizational documents do not contain clear strategic goals aligned to address the order. Clear strategic goals to carry out the executive order could enhance the group's strategic direction for intergovernmental environmental justice efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Environmental justice seeks to address the disproportionately high distribution of health and environmental risks among low-income and minority communities by seeking their fair treatment and meaningful involvement in environmental policy. In 1994, Executive Order 12898 directed 11 federal agencies to identify and address environmental justice issues related to their activities and tasked an interagency working group to coordinate federal environmental justice efforts. In 2011, 16 agencies, including the 11 original agencies, recommitted to planning and reporting on environmental justice efforts by signing an MOU.

GAO was asked to review federal environmental justice efforts. This report examines agencies' environmental justice actions, strategic plans and progress reports, and working group collaboration. GAO reviewed agency environmental justice plans, reports, and funding data; interviewed agency officials; and compared working group collaboration to leading collaborative practices.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 24 recommendations, including that agencies update environmental justice strategic plans and report on progress annually, and that EPA consult with other working group members to provide guidance on assessing progress and to set strategic goals. Of the 15 agencies with recommendations, eight agreed. Other agencies' responses included partial agreement, disagreement, and no comment. GAO continues to support its recommendations.

For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The department did not provide comments on our report or recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, the department agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Office of the Secretary of Defense: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment: Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, Education stated that we did not sufficiently account for the limitations on its legal authority to carry out environmental justice activities. Education also stated that it does not believe this is the most appropriate course of action for the department or an efficient use of resources. We believe that Education can develop a strategic plan within its existing authorities. We will continue to review the department's actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on our report, the department agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on our report, the department neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2020, the department agreed to review its environmental justice strategy and to revise it if needed. It also stated that as part of that review, it will consider any guidance issued by the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG) concerning what agencies should include in environmental justice strategic plans. The department stated that it anticipated receiving such guidance by the end of 2020. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General of the United States should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: In November 2019, the department stated that its role is tangential to achieving environmental justice goals, but it is committed to integrating environmental justice into its responsibilities to protect workers. It stated that it has no plans at this time to update its environmental strategic plan. We agree that Labor should develop an environmental plan that contains goals consistent with its mission and authorities. We will continue to review its actions to implement our recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, the agency agreed with our recommendation. We will continue to review the agency's actions to update its progress in implementing the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the Small Business Administration should complete the agency's assessment of whether to participate in the 1994 Executive Order and the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding, and, if appropriate, develop an environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 8)

    Agency Affected: Small Business Administration

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2020, the department committed to updating its environmental justice strategic plan. It said that it will update its strategic plan pending the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) guidance on what agencies should include in their plans. It also set a goal of completing the update within 6 months of EPA's issuance of guidance. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should update the department's environmental justice strategic plan. (Recommendation 9)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on our report, USDA agreed with our recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 10)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  11. Status: Open

    Comments: The department did not provide comments on our report or recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 11)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  12. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, the Department of Defense (DOD) disagreed with this recommendation. First, DOD stated that it had achieved the intent of Executive Order 12898 by including environmental justice considerations in its decision-making processes, primarily by using the environmental review process. Second, the department stated that it is bound by its mission with limited opportunities to change where the department operates. DOD stated that these reasons make it a significant challenge for the department to meet our recommendation and therefore does not see a tangible benefit to additional reporting. As we stated in our report, DOD would be reporting on goals that it set within its mission and authorities. We will continue to review DOD's actions to carry out this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 12)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Office of the Secretary of Defense: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment: Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment

  13. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, Education stated that we did not sufficiently account for the limitations on its legal authority to carry out environmental justice activities. Education also stated that it does not believe this recommendation is the most appropriate course of action for the department or an efficient use of resources. We believe that Education can develop a strategic plan within its existing authorities, and then it should report its progress on these activities annually. We will continue to review the department's actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 13)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  14. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on our report, the department agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 14)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  15. Status: Open

    Comments: In January 2020, Department of Energy officials stated that they had issued progress reports for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and would issue progress reports annually after this point. We will review the department's reports in upcoming years to determine that it has carried out this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 15)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  16. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on our report, the department agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should issue a progress report on its environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 16)

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  17. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, the department agreed with our recommendation. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 17)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  18. Status: Open

    Comments: In November 2019, the department stated that its role is tangential to achieving environmental justice goals and therefore it has no real chance to update its progress reports. We agree that Labor should develop an environmental strategic plan containing goals consistent with its mission and authorities. It can develop progress reports annually related to these goals. We will continue to review its actions to implement our recommendation and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 18)

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  19. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, the department stated that it partially agreed with this recommendation. It stated that it would update its progress reports as needed. As we stated in our report, leading practices for performance management indicate that annual performance reporting helps an agency to keep track of and achieve its goals. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 19)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  20. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2020, the department committed to issuing annual progress reports. The department also stated that it will use EPA or Interagency Working Group (IWG) guidance on methods agencies could use to assess progress towards their environmental justice goals. It stated that it would begin issuing progress reports following issuance of such guidance and per reporting schedule established by the Environmental Justice IWG. We will continue to review the department's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should issue a progress report on the department's environmental justice efforts each year. (Recommendation 20)

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  21. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, EPA agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the agency's actions and update this information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA, as chair of the working group, should develop guidance for agencies on what they should include in their environmental justice strategic plans. (Recommendation 21)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  22. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, EPA agreed with this recommendation. We will continue to review the agency's actions to update its progress in implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA, as chair of the working group, should develop guidance or create a committee of the working group to develop guidance on methods the agencies could use to assess progress toward their environmental justice goals. (Recommendation 22)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  23. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, EPA disagreed with this recommendation, but also stated that it would lead efforts to update the working group's fiscal year 2016-2018 Framework for Collaboration to include guidance for strategic plans, tracking progress toward goals, and defining alignment with the executive order. We believe that if the agency carries out these actions, it will meet the intent of the recommendation. We will continue to review the agency's actions to update its progress in implementing the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA, as chair of the working group, and in consultation with the working group, should clearly establish, in its organizational documents, strategic goals for the federal government's efforts to carry out the 1994 Executive Order. (Recommendation 23)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  24. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on our report, EPA disagreed with this recommendation and stated that it should be combined with the recommendation to update the Environmental Justice working group's strategic documents. We believe the agency misunderstood the recommendation. As we stated in the report, we believe that the MOU needs to be updated to address the matter of participation by the members who signed it but do not participate. We will continue to review the agency's actions to update its progress in implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA, as chair of the working group, and in consultation with the other working group members, should update the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding and renew the agencies' commitments to participate in the interagency collaborative effort and the working group. (Recommendation 24)

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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